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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Was he Secret Service? Was he FBI? Was he CIA? To be honest, I can't really remember, but he could snap your clavicle before you could say, "is that accent Irish or Scottish?" Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a highly skilled, but now retired, "Preventer" as he refers to himself, in the fun-tastic action revenge flick Taken, recently released on Blu-Ray. Okay so it's a fairly well-worn plot: the good guy retires from his dangerous, highly skilled job, wants to spend more time with his daughter, strained relationship with the bitter and snotty ex-wife (Famke Janssen) who has a rich husband that spoils the daughter with gifts that Mills cannot ever hope to afford -- daughter gets into big life-or-death trouble, and it's daddy to the rescue.

Well worn indeed, but in this case it feels more like that fleece wrap that's been sitting on your couch for a couple years, the one that keeps getting softer every time you wash it. And it's not Jean-Claude Van damme, Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris this time, it's a real actor, Liam Neeson for crap's sake. And he's good, Neeson's Mills is a deeply sympathetic character who really loves his daughter and can't quite connect with her, and it's just that vulnerability that makes us stay with this guy and want to see him succeed.

Mills' daughter Kim is 17 and she wants to go to Europe for a long trip with a 19-year-old girlfriend. Her clueless mother, Lenore, thinks it's a great idea but Bryan has reservations. He knows the girls will only get into trouble, but he reluctantly signs the permission slip she needs to leave the country without her parents. Well, sure as shinola, soon as they get to France they get spotted by some Albanian scumbags who kidnap women to sell into slavery...not like working in a field, like SEX slaves, okay. So they nab the girls, but not before Kim is able to make a phone call to her pop, and describe her attackers in as much detail as she can. Now the only hope Kim has is her father -- and you better believe he's going to find her, and fill a lot of body bags in the process.

Taken is a good old-fashioned bad-guys-getting-their-butts-handed-to-them kinda flick. Neeson even resorts to torture, but it's the good kind of torture where a guilty murderous dirtbag gets painfully electrocuted, none of this pouring water over his face crap, this is the real deal, baby! And it's effective. Very effective.

The Blu-Ray's sharpness and sound quality adds an extra dimension to the glorious brutality, from the snapping ligaments and tortured moans of the villains, to the mouth-watering Parisian street scenes, this is definitely the way to watch it. I watched the unrated version, which I generally prefer, the theatrical version is also included on this disc. There's the usual Dolby Digital and DTS Sound -- English, Spanish, and French subtitles -- audio commentary -- and there's also a digital copy for your Mac or PC. I popped in the extra DVD and opened up iTunes, it asks for the code on the back of the insert, you type it in and, voila, the digital copy downloads right to your computer. It only takes up 1.23 GB and the quality is quite good, and you can pop that onto your Ipod if you want. So, nice job on this release from 20th Century Fox. Well done.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Notorious - Blu Ray Review

George Tillman, Jr's eschatological hip-hop odyssey “Notorious” is a chilling look at the very short rise and fall of the talented and rotund rapper Biggie Smalls. He was a shy, fat kid – and Christopher Wallace's single mother tried to keep him in school, out of the drug trade, out of the gangs, but the streets and lure of easy money were too strong for the smart and ambitious youngster. Luckily he had a talent, he could rap, and he had an angle -- a big man from the streets of Brooklyn whose raw rhymes could even up the score between the East Coast and West Coast rap rivalry. It was a war that ultimately would claim the lives of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, two of the biggest names at the time.

Being a 42-year-old white guy, I'm not much of a rap fan, but I ain't no hater either. So while my expectations were low coming into this one, I found it quite watchable, perhaps because of my lack of knowledge about the deadly goings-on between the nouveau riche dumb asses who got used to selling drugs and women, using drugs and women, and shooting at each other in their old hoods, and then kept up the tradition once they hit it big. Well, old habits die hard I guess. It was just plain fascinating. Newcomer Jamal Woolard plays the teenage and adult Biggie, and brings to the role an innocence that certainly underscores the seriousness of the situation that unfolds and escalates around him. Another interesting casting move -- Biggie's real-life son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays the “little” Biggie, and the kid does a nice job as well.

As fascinating as the characters are in the film, the dialog is a bit listless and it never quite jumps off the screen, but it does manage to sufficiently tell the story, and there's more than enough Biggie tunes to satisfy the ears. Biggie fans will no doubt enjoy some of the hip-hop history involving Biggie's relationships with Faith Evans and Lil' Kim, as well as Sean Puffy Combs and others. As always, I recommend going with the Blu-Ray version of this one. If you've never been to New York or L.A., then the blazingly sharp night sequences really capture their flavor. Extra goodies include the theatrical and director's cuts, audio commentaries from the writers and the director, featurettes chronicling the production, and DTS surround sound. Oh, there's also some nice 1080p Hi-Def nudity sprinkled in, if only there were some way to pixel out the naked Biggie underneath Lil' Kim? Well, I guess that feature has yet to be added to the Blu-Ray toolbox. And with those sequences in mind, if you decide to send Grandma a copy of “Notorious” you may want to make sure it's the Cary Grant version.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Austraila - Blu-ray Review

The fourth film from director Baz Luhrman is one of those "sweeping epics" set in, oddly enough, Australia, during World War II. The aptly titled "Australia" gives us a new perspective on the far-reaching effects of the second great war, this time from Down Under, a view that I appreciated, since not many films have tackled that period from that angle.

Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an aristocrat from England, who comes to the faraway and mysterious continent and finds herself in charge of her recently murdered husband's ranch. A cattle war is brewing, and King Carney (Bryan Brown) is the dastardly competitor who will stop at nothing in his attempt to monopolize the cattle trade and gain the contracts that will feed the troops as they fight the Nazis. Things get more complicated when she meets The Drover, the dashing, rough and tumble outback cowboy and cattle driver played by Hugh Jackman. Drover's intention is strictly business as he helps Lady Ashley move her cattle to Darwin to be sold, but a romance soon develops. A second complication arises as Sarah grows more attached to the recently orphaned aboriginal half-breed, Nullah, well played by a very striking and magical-looking kid named Brandon Walters. Nullah is in hiding because, at that time, it was common for aboriginal children to be taken from their "savage" environment and assimilated into the more "civilized" white culture. The three protagonists are bonded during their adventures and must battle Carney's blood thirsty henchman, Fletcher (David Wenham), as well as the Japanese air force, which leveled the city of Darwin during a bombing raid.

As I said, it's Lurhman's fourth film, and while I have not seen his first effort, "Strictly Ballroom," I have seen the last three and have enjoyed them all. As with those last three pictures, "Australia" pops right out of the gate with an all-out frontal assault on the senses, utilizing narrative, narration, and a carpet-bombing of expository information and jarring tonal shifts from dour and serious, to playful slapstick. If you stay frosty, you can follow it well enough. Just make sure you aren't popping the popcorn and watching from the kitchen for the first ten minutes. I'm not sure if the film settles down after a while, or if the viewer becomes inured to it. I found that with Moulin Rouge as well. It's become a signature of Lurhman's films.

Watching this one on Blu-ray is the only way to go. The golden browns and burnt oranges of the countryside (assisted by Mandy Walker's outstanding cinematography) are gorgeous, there's also a scene at a big dance where beautifully colored lanterns float above the party-goers. A very nice image. And the sub-woofer-melting "bombing of Darwin" sequence stayed with me as well. And, hey, I'm a breeder, but that shot of Hugh Jackman dumping water all over himself for a quick desert bath is burned-in too. I guess the sequence where Drover stops off at the local Outback Crunch Gym to work out with his personal trainer for a few hours probably ended up in the Avid trash bin, no worries.

The Blu-ray has a pretty swanky menu system. I found some of the button responses rather slow but it could be my Philips player, hopefully your results will be different. I find that with a lot of Blu-rays. I suppose that will work itself out as the technology improves. The disc includes many extras but I found the featurette about the history of that period in Australia to be particularly useful in keeping the story in context. Lurhman, who also wrote the film, did a lot of research and tried to keep the story as grounded in reality as possible. I found the film pretty satisfying and Lurhman keeps the main story small enough to matter and it doesn't get swallowed up by its gigantic backdrop.

One of the themes running through the film is that all one really has in life is "their story." The Drover is just "trying to live a good one" and Nullah's grandfather, the aboriginal shaman tells him that "telling a good story is the most important thing in the world," so a movie that sets that up as its goal needs to deliver, and I think this one does manage to "tell a good story." Nice work, Baz.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Kite Runner - Blu-Ray Review

Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland) directed this highly acclaimed film based on the novel of the same name, written by Khaled Hosseini. Adapted for the screen by David Benioff -- who showed some previous chops in the adaptation realm when he turned Homer's "Iliad" into the blockbuster "Troy" -- this simple and deeply troublesome story follows two boys growing up in Afghanistan, and the drastically different paths their lives will take.

Amir, the well-to-do, foofy, and creative Pashtun kid; and Hassan, the lowly son of Amir's family's servant, are the best of friends. Hassan, while the smaller of the two, often protects his BFF from the numerous bullies who stalk the city. But a particularly horrible incident befalls Hassan, an incident that Amir witnesses, impotently frozen in terror. Their friendship is sadly torn apart as Amir soon realizes that Hassan's presence is a constant reminder of his own cowardice. Soon thereafter, Russia invades their country and Amir's father brings him to America, and the two boys will never meet again.

Many years later, Amir, now a succesful writer living in San Francisco, has used his abject
whimpiness to achieve an almost Alan-Alda-like level of sensitivity. He's married to a lovely
lady, life is good, but a phonecall from his homeland opens old wounds, and Amir decides to return to the Middle East. Propelled by his well-deserved guilt, the sour-faced Amir dons a beard (increasing his already uncanny resemblance to a Team America marionette) and heads into the Taliban-controlled Kabul City, there he must face old demons, old enemies, and redeem himself in his own eyes.

All right, I've taken some jabs, but frankly this film does have a few good twists that I don't
want to pimp out, so I respect it enough to put a lid on some of the spoilers. Amir finally does
come to terms with his sissiness, but for me it was rather unsatisfying in its execution. And
there are more than a few clunky moments, but they are offset by some very poignant scenes, so it all comes out in the wash. There are indeed some kite-flying sequences in the film that lend the movie its title, just try not to notice that the kids are flying their kites without any actual
wind. The locations are used with great effect, although I think the art director went a little
nutty on the color sheme -- never have I seen so many vibrant colors so meticulously placed in a street bazaar, but they do serve a purpose that'll I get to in bit.

The Kite Runner, with its flaws, is a tragic but hopeful film that effectively delivers some
powerful life messages for adults to ponder, and the PG-13 rating should be heeded, probably too intense for those younger viewers. The Blu-ray DVD transfer is top notch. The picture is as sharp as my cell-mate's toothbrush shiv and the colors jumped right off of my Costco Sceptre 46-inch screen and almost splattered on my carpet. The vibrant reds, blues and yellows and oranges... okay and greens, splashed throughout the desert city sequences seem to say, "Hey, this place is more beautiful than the brown, dusty, dirty view you usually get on CNN." Even without the surround sound turned on (I only have two speakers but they're bigguns) it delivers a full audio palette. There's also some audio commentary by the writers and director, as well as other extras to fill in a lot of the details about the production. As always, with Blu-Ray, make sure you've got your HDMI cable to take advantage of The Kite Runner's full 1080p resolution. The disc also features an English, French, and Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track for those who can take advantage of it, as well as subtitles in French, English (and SDH), Spanish, and Portuguese.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Yentl Finally on DVD

It's been 25 years since Barbra Streisand's celebrated feature directorial debut film first touched the big screen, and it's taken that long for the film to finally come to DVD. I was a confirmed movie geek by 1983, at the tender age of 16, but Yentl was pretty far down on my list of flicks to catch -- what with Return of the Jedi, The Right Stuff, and the Man with Two Brains all vying for a teenage male's attention. Alas, Luke Skywalker, Steve Martin, and the Apollo astronauts won that round. All fine films. But I've grown up a lot since then, older and heavier, and more open to stories about a young Jewish woman longing to live her life the way she saw fit. Amongst the Eastern European Jewry of 1904, it was forbidden for women to study the Talmud, forbidden for them to do lots of things, and Yentl is a woman who grew up (aided by her father) with an insatiable desire to learn. Much to her father's (and the village women's) dismay,Yentl eschews all things feminine, and has no desire to subjugate herself to a husband. She lives for intellectual pursuits, and has a love (and a formidable understanding) of biblical teaching that rivals that of any man. After the death of her father, Yentl decides to go out on her own, disguised as a man, to study with the opposite sex. It's a journey that will ultimately reconcile her with her lost feminine side, and give her special insight into the roles of men and women.

As I said, it was Streisand's first try at directing a feature film after starring in numerous box-office successes -- a gamble, but a gamble that paid off. She picked up a Golden Globe for her efforts as director, and the film won some Oscars for its music. It also took a nice chunk of ticket sales that year, 39 Mil in 1983 dollars is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a 12 million dollar film. But besides all that, it's a very sweet film. Sure, she's supposed to be in her late 20's (Babs was about 40 at the time), and only in the dimmest lighting could she pass for a young man -- but that's what suspension of disbelief is all about. The songs are nice, although for me not as catchy as I would have expected, and the performances by the main players were top notch. Amy Irving even got herself a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Mandy Patinkin is also an anchor as the young and brilliant Avigdor, whom Yentl falls in love with. While it's certainly not hard to coax a great performance out of Patinkin, Streisand shows a calm dexterity in working with actors on her first film, and to attack a musical film as the main star, while directing, is quite an achievement even for a veteran like Babs.

Fans of Yentl have waited a long time to see this film come to DVD. It's decked out with some nice extras -- rehearsals, deleted scenes, audio commentary -- lovingly put together with much cooperation with Ms. Streisand herself. Expect a nice evening in front of the big screen with this one.